I decided to take a four week contract writing and editing position. After
working for car magazines for well over a decade, I wanted to experience
technical writing and editing in a completely different environment. However,
the important point for this story was that the job was located at Brisbane
airport, which is 86 kilometres from where I live.
each day I was doing a 172 kilometre commute. In the world’s most economical car
– a 2001 Honda Insight.
quickly, “world’s most economical car” means little: it’s a throwaway line. So
let’s take a look at what it actually was like on the road each day, hitting the
Gold Coast to Brisbane freeway at 7 o’clock every morning.
My first 20 minutes each day is on a steeply
descending, winding and bumpy secondary country road. In this environment the
Insight is quite poor: the rear suspension travel is far too short and the
dampers too soft. The car pitches and bounces, the thinly padded seats not
providing the second layer of absorption needed in this road environment. But
the electric power steering is precise and direct, a far cry from most
I could tell you the fuel economy that I get on
this first 25 kilometres downhill but it would be completely atypical – even
thirsty cars get excellent economy when most of the trip is made with the foot
off the throttle!
So it’s at the bottom of the hill – and stopped at
the roundabout – that I re-zero the fuel consumption display.
The Insight has four fuel consumption displays.
The first is an instantaneous display. The second is a lifetime display, showing
the fuel consumption since the car first drove off the production line. The
third is a resettable display used most often to show tank consumption and the
fourth is a trip display. It was the latter that I reset.
The roundabout is still a kilometre or so from
where I join the freeway and the urban traffic is busy at this time of the
morning. So after exiting the roundabout, I short-change the gearbox, following
the pleading ‘up’ light that appears on the dash and always suggests up-changes
at quite low revs. The 1-litre 3-cylinder engine hasn’t got massive bottom-end
torque, but after each up-change, the ‘assist’ display on the dash shows that
the 10kW electric motor is giving a short-term helping hand, each time using
about 25 per cent of its maximum available torque.
But as with any car, accelerating away from
standstill takes lots of power, and the fuel consumption display average (which
updates every few minutes) pops up a first figure of 12 litres/100
I have time only to read it before I arrive at
traffic lights. They’re always red and as I lift my foot to slow, the
instantaneous fuel consumption drops to zero as the over-run fuel injection
cut-off occurs. As soon as I select neutral gear and slow under braking, the
engine switches off completely, an ‘auto stop’ light flashing on the dash. So as
I wait for the traffic light to change, the engine of the car is silent. That’s
not helping to get my 12 litres/100 km figure downwards – but it is stopping it
The light changes to green, I select first gear
and the engine instantly starts – the 10kW electric motor now acting as the
starter. There’s no waiting for the engine to come to life: it’s just a case of
selecting the gear and going.
I turn right across the intersection and then join
the freeway entrance lane. This section of freeway is marked at 110 km/h and,
even with the constant police presence, the traffic flow here at Oxenford
usually sits on 115 km/h. So this time I ignore the ‘up’ change indication and
wind the little engine out much further – 4000 rpm in first and second gears.
Because of the large throttle angles, the electric-assist works strongly – I am
getting nearly full electric power during this acceleration. I join the freeway
slow lane at 100 km/h and then shift across one or two more lanes (there’s four
to choose from) before settling at 115 km/h.
On this concrete surface and at this speed the
Insight is noisy. Tyre boom reverberates through the all-aluminium body and the
car doesn’t feel remotely as sophisticated as its original near AUD$50K price
suggests it should. But I have fitted a JVC DVD player with dozens of albums of
MP3 music encoded on a DVD so I just crank it up and listen to the weird mix of
1970s country music that I find soothing at this time of morning.
On this stretch of freeway, bum-snufflers abound:
those that see a small car ahead of them, assume it must be slow, speed up until
they’re metres behind me, change lanes to go around me, get in the fast lane and
then look at their speedos, realise they’re now going fast enough to be pinged,
slow down, then realise that I was already going as fast as they want to go,
swap back into the lane behind me, do some more snuffling....
The traffic is flowing well and there’s little to
do except listen to the music and watch the fuel consumption display. In
sequence up pop the numbers.
Hmmm, now as economical as my V8 Lexus LS400 could
ever manage on this freeway...
OK now more economical than my 4 litre 5-speed
manual EF Falcon...
Now moving past the freeway figure of my Prius
turbo, and getting better than all but the smallest engine petrol cars on the
OK, goodbye diesel passenger cars.
Now we’re in a field of our own...
On this smoother surface the Insight is
comfortable, the seats which at first seem to give too little lumbar support are
well-shaped and have no pressure points, the front and rear visibility is good,
the steering precise and direct. The car moves around a little in the
aerodynamic bow waves of other vehicles but it’s a consistent, slow movement
which after a while is corrected for without thought. There are a few gentle
rises and falls on this road; the Insight traverses them seamlessly and with no
effort. However, with the lack of cruise control, keeping the digital display
reading constantly on 115 km/h takes a little concentration.
I wonder how fast I could go if the road wasn’t so
heavily policed: one night I followed a V8 Falcon ute home at a constant 135
km/h and the Insight still felt like it was just loafing – that tiny frontal
area and drag coefficient of 0.25 aren’t just irrelevant specs...
So far the traffic flow has been great but I know
from bitter experience that once we all reach Springwood, the lines of traffic –
now down to three lanes – will come to a literal halt. I switch on the UHF radio
that I’ve fitted and listen to the trucks: typically, they’ll be broadcasting
lines like “Northbound coming to a halt at Springwood” which gives me a few
kilometres of warning. That way I can get rid of the bum-snufflers who two out
of five days cause a tail-end collision on this stretch of road. (You’d think
they’d learn, but....)
I watch the wall-to-wall brake lights appear
around the bend and lift off, the regen braking indicator moving to full scale.
When the regen automatically switches off at 32 km/h, I select neutral and so
the engine is already off as I come to a halt. The traffic is moving in fits and
starts: first or second gear for the Insight. Both are incredibly tall gears
(second takes the car to over 110 km/h) and to pull the gearing, the electric
assist is kicking in and out.
Unlike a Prius, the Insight cannot run on battery
alone so every time I need to move forward – even only a few metres – the engine
restarts. You’d think that would be a huge disadvantage for fuel economy but the
average trip consumption keeps dropping – now it’s down to an incredible 3.4
litres/100km. When scanning the dash displays it’s easy to come across the ‘3.4’
number and wonder for a moment what it actually means: the idea of trip fuel
economy being this good is simply so startling.
Like an elephant with a hangover, the traffic
wrestles and grumbles before finally starting to flow. I join the Gateway
Motorway and then reach the real traffic: from here, the 20 kilometres to the
airport it will be one long traffic jam. It is every day.
On the radio the truckies swap jokes (Truckie #1:
My wife is an angel. Truckie #2: Geez mate, you’re lucky; mine isn’t dead yet)
and the traffic crawls along. Incredibly, the Insight trip fuel economy gets
better and better: 3.3 litres/100km, then down to a mind-boggling 3.0
Yep, three litres per hundred kilometres.
When the two lines of cars can travel at 80 km/h,
the instantaneous fuel consumption display shows 2 litres/100km – but the
traffic isn’t sitting on 80 km/h. Instead, there are more starts and stops, more
of the sort of driving that in any manual trans car is wearying. In these
conditions the Prius – with its automatic trans – is much more relaxing.
I watch the navigation screen of my VDO Dayton
system (this is the third car it’s been in) and see the Gateway Bridge over the
Brisbane River inching closer. Finally it comes into view and I stop at the toll
gates to pay the $2.50. The climb up the bridge is steep and I stay in the slow
lane: I am to turn off shortly and the extra trip time of staying in this lane
The acceleration away from the toll booth and the
climb up the bridge have not been good for fuel consumption: the trip
consumption has risen to 3.1 litres/100. But rolling down the other side of the
bridge, throttle off and a little regen braking automatically occurring, brings
the display average back to 3.0 litres/100km.
I turn onto Kingsford Smith Drive and thread my
way through the back roads to the aviation maintenance area of Brisbane Airport.
The roads are marked – and policed – at 60 km/h and the traffic has all but
disappeared. I sit on 61 km/h in fifth gear, the engine barely turning over and
any acceleration being provided by the electric assist.
A kilometre or two from my destination, the trip
fuel consumption drops to 2.9 litres/100km.
Yes, this car with its sound system and its
weatherproofness and its twin airbags and its good steering and its ability to
easily keep up with the traffic, this car has just taken 90 minutes to transport
me to work with a fuel consumption of 2.9 litres for every 100 kilometres.
One day, I even got 2.8 litres/100.....